Ever since I was young, I dreaded speaking in public. I hated the English and Afrikaans teachers the most because they would make us have prepared reading, unprepared reading and all those other readings that required us to stand in front of the class with everyone listening to you. Over the years as I grew older, I thought that maybe this fear of public speaking would go away but it never did. I am a very friendly person who can literally befriend anyone in any situation but why was is it so difficult for me to speak to a group of people at once?
There are different techniques people recommend that normally help with public speaking like picture everyone naked or take a deep breath before you start and you will be fine. All I can think about the second I open my mouth is how I would like to be done already.
When I got to university and was seated in a lecture room with more than a hundred students, I couldn’t help but have this satisfying feeling that I never have to speak in front of anyone for the next three years. Unfortunately, my excitement was cut short when I got to the second year major physics, we were expected to give project presentations all the way to Honours.
Finally, I started my MSc and I was certain that I was done but to my dismay, I was told I would be attending conferences and would have to give a talk about my research. I was overwhelmed with fear when I got to my first international conference, especially since I was not just giving a talk but I also felt the pressure of representing the University and the country. I remember the night before my talk, I tried really hard to practice my slides but I couldn’t get anywhere. I decided to get some rest and I would “go with the flow” during my presentation the following day.
When I got there in front of everyone, I had a very tight knot in my stomach that completely disappeared after I started speaking. I stood there in front of everyone and started talking to everyone about my research. That was the day it finally made sense to me why they call it a “talk” instead. The idea is to engage with your audience, talk to them instead of trying to recite as much information to them as you can in 15 minutes. Ever since that day, I don’t have sleepless nights when I am told I will be giving a talk for anything. Obviously, I still prepare for presentations but I don’t spend countless hours trying to cram what to say in every slide.
I overcame my fear of public speaking by realising that the people in my audience are there to either learn something from me or the experts in the field are there to teach me something. I realised that giving talks is a great platform to get peoples’ input and ideas on what I am working on. What I do now is I only add content that I am 100% sure that I know and understand in my slides. I do not add words I do not know their exact meaning or diagrams that I have no idea what they are representing. I stopped looking at giving talks as punishment and I honestly believe that exactly was the day I also started enjoying speaking in public.
Another thing I do is always remove my glasses, that way I can make eye contact with the audience and yet I don’t actually see them because my eyesight is a little impaired.
I am mastering the art of communicating my science, just watch the space. My postgraduate journey so far has equipped me with communication skills, something that I struggled with all my life. I can now give a talk, present a poster and generally just speak in front of a group of people without feeling like the air is becoming less in the room.